Taking the Lead: Ukrainian Student Inspires Peers to be Civically Active and Informed
Kharkiv-based student Rashyd Bilalov is 18 years old and already leading discussions with his peers on democratic governance and fair elections.
In early 2019, before Ukraine’s presidential election, Rashyd organized the “Democracy Talks” project – later renamed “Freedom to Speak Up” – at his university. In the beginning, the project’s primary objective was to organize weekly discussions on the importance of elections and citizens’ roles in shaping government policy for youth. The focus of the talks, which did not stop after Ukraine’s March 2019 presidential election, included an emphasis on first-time voters.
“At first, I thought I would just conduct ‘Democracy Talks’ before the elections and finish this project right after,” said Rashyd. “But I enjoyed organizing such discussions, and people enjoyed participating as well. Therefore, I decided to continue the project even after the election.”
Additional meetings were devoted to education, human and LGBTQ rights and fighting corruption.
Rashyd points to two initiatives that inspired him to organize his project: the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Democracy: From Theory to Practice civic education course and observing the midterm elections in the United States (U.S.) last fall.
The Democracy: From Theory to Practice course is based on IFES’ global, university-level civic education methodology, “Strengthening Engagement Through Education for Democracy,” and tailored to the Ukrainian context. The curriculum, materials and methodology are designed to foster students’ democratic values and attitudes and equip them with the knowledge and skills essential to effective and informed citizenship in digital age democracies. Nearly 1,000 students enrolled during its inaugural fall semester in 2018. In the upcoming 2019-20 academic year, the course will be offered to thousands of students in 20 universities across Ukraine.
The V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, where Rashyd studies foreign languages and literature, was among the first eight universities that introduced IFES’ Democracy: From Theory to Practice course into their regular curriculum. In its first year, the course was an elective in seven out of eight universities and mandatory in one. Many of the professors trained to teach Democracy: From Theory to Practice preferred to offer the course as an elective so that the enrolled students were more likely to be engaged and motivated.
“The course gave me the opportunity to fulfill my potential, to understand how I see the concept of human rights and why it is important for me personally to contribute in establishing democracy in Ukraine.”
Rashyd was an early alumnus of the course and became one of its student ambassadors.
“The course gave me the opportunity to fulfill my potential, to understand how I see the concept of human rights and why it is important for me personally to contribute in establishing democracy in Ukraine,” he said. “I was also able to reveal my organizational skills, and learned how to work in a team. I believe that this course is truly innovative and helpful to every student regardless of his or her career plans.”
The knowledge gained during the course helped Rashyd write an essay that provided him the opportunity to visit the U.S. during the 2018 midterm elections with three other students. In the U.S., Rashyd witnessed how political discussions are organized at the College of New Jersey. “I saw how Americans relate to democratic values and could compare it with how Ukrainians relate to them. I saw active students who organize joint meetings, discuss issues of concern to them and to the societies in which they live. The trip to the USA inspired me to gather students and discuss elections in my town,” he said.
Rashyd plans to create an alumni association for Democracy: From Theory to Practice graduates and continue organizing youth events in his city. He is not certain about his career plans but pledged to make every effort to develop democracy in Ukraine.
“Democracy gives an opportunity to young people to develop themselves and think freely."
“Democracy gives an opportunity to young people to develop themselves and think freely,” said Rashyd. “I believe that the reinforcement of democracy is the only possible path for Ukraine.”
IFES' activities in Ukraine are made possible with support from the United States Agency for International Development, Global Affairs Canada and UK aid. Since 1994, IFES has played a key role in the emergence of democratic electoral processes and institutions in Ukraine. Through this period, IFES has developed a reputation as a reliable source for impartial analysis and high-quality technical assistance in the fields of electoral and political finance law reform, election administration, civil society capacity building, civic education and public opinion research.